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  • Clint Romesha , Darrell Owens


Everyone has heard the figures: 20 years and $1 trillion.

Following the Sept. 11 attacks, this generation of young Americans went to war. It’s the only normal many of us have known. We were asked to volunteer to defend our nation that was suddenly attacked, and millions of our best and brightest signed up in the years that followed, knowing the risk.

The war was real; it wasn’t a story on TV. For hundreds of thousands of American service members, the memories are still vivid: the scenes and smells, the smiles and pain, the mortar explosions and whirling helicopter blades, as well as the hurt and the unfulfillment.

Yet this week, seemingly in an instant, Afghanistan was given back to the Taliban with barely

a whimper.

The U.S. provided a level of stability in Afghan lives for two decades while trying to reduce the risk of terrorism to our country. Seeing this investment of money and effort and human lives crumble now is heartbreaking.

Our country provided an opportunity for independence and growth for the Afghan nation, but we could not guarantee or control the outcome for them and now the fault will be debated and redistributed for years to come.

One thing we can be sure of is the value of the contribution made by our troops. The sacrifices made by countless Americans who served were not made in vain.

It’s impossible to know the full extent of those sacrifices, from being away and missing the birth of a child, their first steps, and birthdays, or the toll it has taken on families and marriages, all the way to our veterans returning with hidden wounds such as post-traumatic stress, or amputations, or the 2,372 Americans who were killed in action.

Despite the immeasurable sacrifice, there was never a clear definition of victory. Neither the commanders on the ground nor policymakers in D.C. could clearly articulate what winning looked like or how it could be achieved. This placed our troops in a difficult situation, tasked with fighting a patient enemy that dissolved into the populace and winning a war without clear objectives.

And still – our military figured out how to get the job done. They kept the United States safe from another devastating terrorist attack and trained Afghan partners and allies, while also building capabilities and simultaneously building schools and hospitals.

Now, most of the troops are home, ordered to withdraw overnight in the middle of fighting season and the enemy that so easily hid among the desolate canyons in rural Afghanistan has morphed back together and pulled apart the hard-fought gains of the last 20 years.

What did our troops return to? No ticker-tape parades. No victory celebrations. No triumphant return as liberators. It’s something many veterans were struggling with before Afghanistan was overrun, and now it has become a major point of sadness and introspection.

In a poll done by Mission Roll Call earlier this week, over 71% of respondents stated that the recent Taliban advance through Afghanistan was a reason for personal reflection or sadness.

Over the past week, we have heard from hundreds of veterans who shared their frustrations, anger, anxiety, confusion and disappointment over the news in Afghanistan. Many were worried for their Afghan counterparts that they worked directly with. Others were worried for their friends and fellow former service members who are now back stateside. Others just wanted to vent and ask questions.

The question we heard the most: What was it all for?

However, despite this question and others, most veterans have been able to put their service into perspective. Many went into Afghanistan with a very realistic point of view: that the war was not about winning or losing but performing the mission to the best of your abilities while doing everything possible to ensure everyone came home.

At the end of the day, regardless of mission, it is about your friends and allies – and making sure everyone comes home.

For those veterans back in the United States, now the battle must be to assist them in obtaining the help and benefits they have earned. The VA must make ending veterans’ suicide the top priority, while also increasing all efforts to expand access to community care. Long lines for care, postponed and canceled appointments, benefits backlogs, and endless bureaucracy must end.

Even without a “Mission Accomplished” banner, all those who served in uniform can take pride in serving our nation. Questions will continue as the situation evolves in Afghanistan, but we must always be grateful and care for those who we had the honor to serve alongside.

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